Osteochondral Defects of the Knee

Osteochondral/Cartilage Injury of the Knee: Comprehensive Treatment Approaches

 Introduction to Osteochondral/Cartilage Injury

Osteochondral injuries involve damage to both the cartilage surface of the joint and the underlying bone, commonly affecting the knee. These injuries can result from acute trauma, such as a sports injury, or degenerative conditions like osteoarthritis. The complexity of these injuries lies in the cartilage's limited healing capacity, making effective treatment crucial for restoring joint function and preventing long-term degeneration.

Causes and Risk Factors

Osteochondral injuries can occur due to various factors, including direct impact injuries, repetitive stress, and joint instability. Athletes or individuals engaging in high-impact activities are at increased risk, as are those with joint malalignment or congenital predispositions to cartilage abnormalities.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Symptoms typically include knee pain, swelling, stiffness, and a catching or locking sensation within the joint. Diagnosis involves a combination of patient history, physical examination, and imaging tests such as MRI, which provides detailed images of both bone and soft tissue, aiding in the assessment of the injury's extent. Dr. Dini specializes in bedside ultrasound that can be performed on the same day as your visit. Many OCDs can be preliminarily diagnosed via ultrasound.

Surgical Treatmenta and Options

Surgical intervention is often necessary for osteochondral injuries to restore joint surface integrity and function. The choice of surgery depends on factors like the injury's size, location, and depth, as well as the patient's age and activity level.


Microfracture Surgery

Indications: Recommended for patients with small, contained areas of cartilage loss. It's often considered a first-line surgical option due to its minimally invasive nature.

Procedure Overview: The surgeon creates tiny fractures in the underlying bone. This process stimulates a healing response, encouraging the growth of new cartilage-like tissue.


  • Less invasive with a shorter recovery time compared to other surgical options.
  • Can be effective in stimulating new tissue growth in the right candidates.


  • The new tissue is fibrocartilage, which is less durable than the original hyaline cartilage.
  • May not be suitable for larger defects or in patients with widespread cartilage damage.

Literature: A study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that athletes undergoing microfracture surgery for knee cartilage repair had varied outcomes, with a significant number returning to their sport but at potentially reduced levels of play.

Osteochondral Autograft Transplantation (OAT)

Indications: Best suited for small to medium-sized, well-contained cartilage defects. Often recommended for younger, active patients.

Procedure Overview: Involves the transplantation of one or several small plugs of bone and cartilage from a non-weight-bearing area of the knee to the damaged area.


  • Utilizes the patient's own tissue, reducing the risk of rejection.
  • Provides hyaline cartilage, which is superior to the fibrocartilage produced by microfracture.


  • Limited by the size of the defect that can be treated due to the finite amount of donor tissue available.
  • Potential for donor site morbidity.

Literature: Research published in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery showed positive outcomes for OAT in treating small cartilage defects, with good to excellent results in terms of pain relief and function restoration.

Osteochondral Allograft Transplantation

Indications: Indicated for larger osteochondral defects or when autograft options are not viable due to the size of the defect or previous surgeries.

Procedure Overview: Similar to OAT but uses tissue harvested from a cadaver donor. This allows for the treatment of larger defects.


  • Can cover larger defect areas without the limitations of donor site morbidity.
  • Provides hyaline cartilage, offering a potentially more durable repair than microfracture.


  • Risk of disease transmission, although very low due to rigorous screening processes.
  • Potential for immune rejection, though relatively rare.

Literature: A comprehensive review in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine highlighted successful outcomes with allograft transplantation, particularly in patients with large osteochondral defects.


Autologous Chondrocyte Implantation (ACI)

Indications: Suitable for young, active patients with medium to large-sized defects who have failed other less invasive treatments.

Procedure Overview: A two-step process where healthy cartilage cells (chondrocytes) are harvested, cultured to increase their number, and then implanted into the defect, covered with a patch.


  • Potential for regeneration of true hyaline-like cartilage.
  • Can treat larger areas than OAT.


  • More invasive and requires two surgeries: one to harvest cells and another to implant them.
  • Higher cost and more technically demanding.

Literature: Studies, including those published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, have shown encouraging outcomes in terms of pain reduction and improved knee function post-ACI, especially in patients who are not candidates for other types of repair.

Regenerative Medicine and Orthobiologics

Emerging regenerative treatments offer promising avenues for enhancing cartilage repair and addressing osteochondral injuries.

Platelet-Rich Plasma (PRP) for Osteochondral Defects (OCD)

Mechanism of Action: PRP is derived from the patient's own blood and processed to concentrate platelets. These platelets release a variety of growth factors that can stimulate the healing of bone and soft tissue. When injected into an area of injury, these growth factors can initiate and amplify the body's natural healing processes.

Therapeutic Potential:

  • Pain Reduction: PRP may help alleviate pain by reducing inflammation and promoting the regeneration of healthy tissue.
  • Cartilage Repair: PRP is being investigated for its potential to enhance the repair of cartilage and improve the quality of the repair tissue.
  • Bone Healing: The growth factors in PRP can also aid in bone healing, potentially benefiting patients with OCD where the subchondral bone is involved.

Research and Literature:

  • A 2017 systematic review in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that PRP injections provided a significant improvement in pain and function in patients with cartilage lesions of the knee, although the studies reviewed were of variable quality.
  • PRP has been shown to improve outcomes when used in conjunction with surgical interventions for OCD, such as microfracture surgery, according to a study in the Journal of Orthopaedic Research.

Bone Marrow-Derived Stem Cells for OCD

Mechanism of Action: Stem cells from bone marrow (BMSCs) have the capability to differentiate into various types of cells, including those necessary for the repair and regeneration of bone and cartilage. By harvesting and concentrating these cells, and then delivering them to the site of injury, they can potentially aid in the repair of OCD lesions.

Therapeutic Potential:

  • Regeneration of Cartilage: BMSCs may help in the development of new cartilage tissue that is more similar to the original hyaline cartilage, as opposed to the inferior fibrocartilage that often develops post-injury.
  • Subchondral Bone Repair: These stem cells can also support the repair of the underlying bone, which is often a component of OCD.

Research and Literature:

  • Clinical trials, such as those referenced in the European Cells & Materials Journal, have demonstrated that BMSCs can improve pain and functional outcomes in patients with cartilage defects. Long-term results showed that the regenerated tissue was still intact and functional up to five years post-treatment.
  • Comparative studies, like those in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, have suggested that BMSCs may provide better long-term improvement in knee function and pain than other cell types or placebo treatments.

Recovery and Rehabilitation

Recovery from osteochondral injury treatments varies depending on the intervention's extent and nature. Rehabilitation plays a crucial role in ensuring successful outcomes, focusing on restoring range of motion, strength, and function while gradually returning to normal activities.

Dr. Dini's Desk: Pioneering Advanced Treatment Options

At the heart of our practice lies a deep commitment not only to today's state-of-the-art treatments but also to the promise of tomorrow's innovations. I am actively involved in pioneering bioengineering research focused on new devices that incorporate intra-operative custom 3D-printed collagen scaffolds—a cutting-edge approach that has the potential to revolutionize how we treat osteochondral and cartilage injuries of the knee.

This technology is designed to merge the best aspects of all existing surgical treatments, offering a tailored fit that matches the unique topography of each patient's knee. The 3D scaffolds are intended to provide a framework for natural tissue regeneration, ultimately leading to better integration and more durable repair.

My passion for treating osteochondral injuries is deeply personal and professional. The potential to improve outcomes significantly and restore full function to patients who might otherwise face limitations is the driving force behind my research efforts. I am excited about the advancements we are making and am looking forward to bringing these additional treatment options to our patients as soon as they are available.

The promise of bioengineered treatments offers hope for not just managing but truly overcoming the challenges posed by knee cartilage injuries. Rest assured that our commitment to your health means providing not just what is currently possible, but also striving for what might be achievable tomorrow. Together, we're not just repairing knees; we're rebuilding futures.

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